OPINION: Cuomo’s L-train surprise: What was his motivation?
As most of our readers know by now, as the much-feared L-train shutdown grew nearer and nearer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Jan. 3 announced that a full 15-month shutdown of the L’s East River tunnel doesn’t have to happen. Instead, he said, the MTA can do its work during overnight and weekend hours.
Some news reports said that the changes in the project are the result of a new approach to repair that Cuomo developed with engineers from Cornell and Columbia universities after he toured the tunnel in mid-December.
Not being an engineer, I can’t confirm or deny this, but I suspect that it might also be the result of Cuomo scouting out a possible presidential bid in 2020 or vying for a cabinet position in a future Democratic administration.
In October, Cuomo announced that he wanted a mass overhaul of the city’s transit system, to be funded in part by congestion pricing. He is now pushing NYC Mayor Blasio to fund half the MTA’s new Fast Forward Plan, which is based on the installation of modern signal technology.
However, we need to balance Cuomo’s recent pronouncements with his long-term record. In a Quinnipiac poll released in early January, 40 percent of New Yorkers who were polled blamed Cuomo for the woes of the MTA, compared to 21 percent who blamed de Blasio and 20 percent who blamed both leaders.
At the time, de Blasio accused Cuomo of diverting more than $400 million in operating funds intended for MTA since 2011. Cuomo denied the numbers — but not that he has used MTA funds for other purposes, such as debt service.
In 2013, Cuomo vetoed a “lockbox bill,” sponsored by former Brooklyn Republican state Sen. Marty Golden but supported by state legislators on both sides of the aisle, that would have prevented such transfers and would have set up a dedicated revenue stream for MTA capital and operating expenses.
As we’ve mentioned, Cuomo has criticized the city for not paying what he considers its share for MTA expenses on the grounds that MTA trains mainly benefit New York City residents or suburban commuters who use MetroNorth or the Long Island Railroad to travel to New York City. When his new overhaul plan was announced this past fall, he was joined in this criticism of the city by former MTA Chair Joe Lhota, who resigned at the end of last year.
When it comes to MTA, the state ultimately controls the purse strings. While the board members are divided between those nominated by the governor, those nominated by the mayor and those nominated by the three suburban counties, it is the governor, in this case Cuomo, who appoints both the MTA chairman and the MTA’s CEO.
The structure of MTA sometimes has worked to the detriment of the city’s concerns. In 2015, $1 billion was slashed from the agency’s capital budget, and there was no money to fund the already approved Phase 2 of the Second Avenue Subway, which would extend the line north to 125th Street. After an outcry by local officials, Cuomo announced the following year that the state budget would restore the $1 billion and fund the Second Avenue project.
Former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, during his long tenure at Borough Hall, put forward what I considered an excellent idea — to have each of the five borough presidents appoint a member of the MTA board. This would have helped meet local concerns. However, this proposal came to naught.
Many in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick and nearby Queens neighborhoods like Ridgewood are happy about the L-train decision. But the way it was done raises doubts about Gov. Cuomo’s sincerity.